Book extract: A Nurse’s Life

As part of the virtual coffee morning for Macmillan being hosted by Great Storie’s with Heart, I am hosting this extract of A Nurse’s Life by Jane Grant. Don’t forget to make a donation to this wonderful cause.

A Nurse’s Life by Jane Grant

Heart-warming and humorous tales from a 1950s student nurse.

In this warm and witty book, Jane Grant recounts her life as a trainee nurse in a busy 1950s London teaching hospital.

Jane, and her friends Mary and Phyllis, discover that both happiness and heartache can be found on the wards of St. Bernard’s Hospital. Before long they realise it takes determination and a sense of humour to deal with the colourful characters of hospital life – and that goes for the staff as well as the patients.

The young nurses gain their medical training under the watchful eyes of strict, but generally fair, Sisters and Matrons. They meet patients who are facing the biggest challenges of their lives, and share with them moments of bravery and fear. There are times of laughter, but also of tears.

There is romance too, as Jane and her fellow student nurses enjoy the attentions of the hospital’s handsome young doctors, falling in and out of love for the first time.

A Nurse’s Life is a moving and amusing account of a bygone era, brought vividly to life.

An excerpt from A Nurse’s Life:

The St. Bernard’s Training School contained about fifty probationer nurses at one time; these were trained for three months before going on the wards. During the year four ‘sets’ of nurses received training. Nurses were put in bedrooms in groups of four: how these groups were sorted out is unknown to me. Did the psychologists pick out those of similar backgrounds and tastes? Did Matron take notes when she interviewed us, and send down our files to Sister? Or, as seems more probable, was the arrangement one entirely of chance?

Whatever the system, the result was that, in nine cases out of ten, the strangers with whom one shared a bedroom became, by the end of one’s training, one’s most intimate friends, and this was recognized by the authorities, who, as far as possible did not separate the original quartet.

The first few days at Borwood were frantically busy and confusing. They were divided into periods of classes, practical work, meals, and study periods. During one of these, Mary had gone to see Sister Tutor about leaving early to catch a train at the week-end. She came back into the classroom and announced: ‘Sister Charlotte wants one of us to volunteer to be a patient for the blanket-bathing class.’

There was silence for a moment. ‘Does the victim have to be blanket-bathed?’ asked Sarah.

‘Oh no, I shouldn’t think so,’ said Mary, obviously knowing nothing about it.

I asked what blanket-bathing was.

‘Oh, I know!’ said Sarah. ‘I remember now my mother had one when she was in hospital. They put blankets next to your skin to raise the temperature.’

‘It sounds bliss,’ I said. It was a very cold day and the classroom was none too warm. I added, ‘I’ll be the patient if nobody else wants to.’

Mary went off to take my offer to Sister Charlotte. A group of nurses sitting in front of us started to laugh and said I was brave. I took no notice, though I did remember at that moment the advice of my brothers never to volunteer for anything.

The time came for our class. I went into the Practical Classroom, which was icy cold, and changed into the very unglamorous pyjamas that the hospital provided for patients. I got into the bed, which was in the middle of the floor surrounded by chairs for student nurses. They assembled, chattering, while my friends hurled ridicule at me from the front seats, and I sat there, trying in vain to look at my ease.

Sister Charlotte walked in briskly, and all talking abruptly ceased.

‘Now, Nurses,’ she said, ‘blanket bathing is one of your most important treatments. An ill patient greatly appreciates being washed.’

An appalling vision began to present itself to me. Sarah grinned, Pat giggled and Mary gave a sympathetic smile. A whisper went round the class.

‘It is really,’ Sister Charlotte continued, ‘merely a matter of common sense. You must have plenty of hot water, get up a good lather, and remember to keep the patient warm.’

She rolled up her sleeves and approached me.

‘First of all we strip the bed,’ she said, and started peeling off the counterpane. ‘Then we get our hot water.’

She signalled to the junior Assistant Tutor, who rushed out of the room carrying two enormous jugs.

‘We get out our toilet requisites,’ said Sister Charlotte, rummaging in the locker beside the bed. ‘Then we fill our bowl.’

The assistant, returning, poured out the water.

‘You must,’ said Sister Charlotte firmly, ‘undress your patient completely.’

There was a stifled gasp from the class, while I turned bright red.

She then proceeded to peel off the pyjama jacket from my frozen body, bending my arm at right angles to my back. I tried desperately to retain my modesty with the blanket. She then moved down to my feet and started pulling at the trousers; airily handed the pyjamas to her assistant to put on the radiator, and advanced on me with the flannel.

She washed me thoroughly, remarking at intervals on points of interest.

‘You must never forget, Nurses’ ‒ digging her fingers in my ear ‒ ‘to wash the ears thoroughly.’ She lifted my arm above my head. ‘Always remember to wash the areas where excess perspiration takes place, twice, and powder.’

By this time I had studied the ceiling to the point where I knew its every detail, for I did not dare to look at my classmates. As she finished with my final leg (‘You must always start with the limb farther away from you’) I gave a deep sigh of relief, and perked up enough to give a weak smile at my friends.

Sister Charlotte then stood back from the bed, but showed no signs of putting on my pyjamas again.

‘Now it is very important, Nurses,’ she said, emphasizing every word, ‘that when a patient is in bed all day, the Pressure Areas should receive a great deal of attention. They should be treated four hourly.’

She then poured more hot water into the bowl, and asked me to turn on my side. She whisked back the blanket, soaped her hands and remarked: ‘You must lather the buttocks well, first washing, then rubbing.’

She continued to suit the action to the word, while my teeth chattered and the bed springs creaked. ‘To harden the skin,’ she went on, having dried the affected area, ‘put spirit on.’ This she applied, further lowering my body temperature. ‘Then powder well.’ I thought the whole thing sounded rather like a cooking-recipe.

Much to my relief, she then returned my pyjamas and dismissed the class.

My sympathetic friends transported me, white and shaken, to our room, where I had the last slice of Sarah’s birthday cake to restore my morale.

The next day’s demonstrations were also a little shattering to the nerves. A man from the local fire-station was called in to teach us emergency fire-drill. The climax consisted in having a rope put underneath your arms, and being dropped out of a window from the top floor. Interest was heightened by nurses getting hit on any window that happened to be open at the time, or becoming stuck on the shrubs growing in the beds underneath.


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